Shanty and Sea Song Symposium, Aland Islands, Friday 3 July 2015

Following on from the successful ‘Atlantic Sounds: Ships and Sailortowns’ research networking project, funded by the AHRC in 2012-2014, principal investigator Catherine Tackley has been working with Hanna Hagmark-Cooper, director of the Aland Maritime Museum to present a symposium alongside the Baltic Shanty Festival. The programme and abstracts can be found below.

09:30                    Museum opens

09:45     10:00     Welcome and introduction

10:00     10:45     Dr Catherine Tackley (The Open University) – Perspectives on shanty singing in twenty-first century Britain

10:45     11:30     Dr Freyja Cox Jensen (University of Exeter) – The seaman’s seven wives: songs of sailors and their women in early modern England

11:30     11:45     coffee

11:45     12:30     Mr Bernard Davis (musician and independent scholar) – Shanties – Musical Lobscouse

12:30     13:15     Dr Laura Seddon & Dr Holly Ingleton (University of Portsmouth) – ‘Advice to Young Maidens’: Contemporary Female Responses to the Sea Shanty

13:15     14:15     Lunch

14:15     15:15     KEYNOTE: Professor Marek Korczynski (University of Nottingham) – Shanties, but Much More: A History of Singing at Work Cultures in the British Isles

15:15     16:45     Roundtable with performers and organisers from the festival

Peter Truin (UK)

Anna Cornish (UK)

Turid Bang Kongstein (N)

Fred Lane (S & UK)

Jan Grönstrand (AX)


Perspectives on shanty singing in twenty-first century Britain

The revival of the shanty accompanied the decline of the UK’s shipping industry in the mid-twentieth century. It was dominated by the larger-than-life figure of Stan Hugill, a former shantyman who ensured the continuation of this musical tradition through his performances and books. But in fact, as shanty authority the late Roy Palmer has pointed out, the idea of reviving a dying art had been a concern by the end of the nineteenth century. Following this, folksong collectors like Cecil Sharp made concerted efforts to document shanties but also to make adaptations (such as censoring the lyrics and providing piano accompaniments) to enable them to be performed on land – even on the concert platform – by those who had little or no direct experience of seafaring. Although this seems to be the complete opposite to Hugill’s approach of connecting the songs with their traditional maritime context, both aimed to ensure that shanties remained relevant.

This illustrated talk considers the continuation of these attitudes to the shanty in a subsequent, recent revival in the UK in the twenty-first century which took place alongside the regeneration of many UK port areas, the (re-)development of sailortowns as contemporary tourist destinations and associated attempts to connect the public with maritime heritage. I will focus in particular on the Falmouth (Cornwall) Sea Shanty Festival, exploring the aims and motivations of different groups. A key feature of the presentation is to invite audience involvement in the comparison of filmed performances of core repertoire, evaluating and discussing presentation and musical aspects.

The seaman’s seven wives: songs of sailors and their women in early modern England

When sailors set off to sea, the women who loved them were usually left behind on shore, not knowing when, or if, they would ever see their menfolk again. The sea was a dangerous place…and sailors were notoriously inconstant in their romantic relations. Most early modern English ballads taking sailors and the sea as their subject matter, address this situation. Some are told as laments by grieving sweethearts for lovers lost at sea, others are presented as hopeful prayers and moralising tales of female constancy, and a few advertise the revenge taken by angry women upon the faithless men who spurned them. And some women – in the songs, at least – went one better, and dressed in men’s apparel and stowed away themselves, in search of their absent sweethearts.

This presentation examines the relationships between women and sailors in early modern ballad sources, exploring what these songs can tell us about gender and social expectations in early modern England, as well as today: love and loss are enduring themes that continue to play an important role in popular and traditional music. It also considers the ballads in their performative context, and engages with how tunes and spaces could create particular meanings for the songs. Musical illustrations, performed live with voice, fiddle, and recorder, will bring the songs to life for the audience, who will also be offered broadsheets with ballads printed on them, as if by a contemporary ballad singer (although unlike an early modern audience, they won’t have to pay!). The audience is also invited to participate in the songs, singing choruses, or suggesting alternative tunes or narratives that will give the early modern ballads a new relevance, and a new identity in twenty-first century song culture.

Shanties – Musical Lobscouse

Most of the authors of the ‘classic’ shanty collections recognised similarities between the shanties they were noting down from sailors and and songs and tunes with which they were already familiar. I’ve checked out their suggestions and the results of my efforts form the basis of this presentation.

Just as the ship’s cook made his scouse from anything that came to hand, so the shantyman produced his worksongs from any songs or tunes he or his shipmates could remember, altering them to a greater or lesser extent, sometimes using mere scraps of tune or lyrics which appealed to him and, where necessary, amalgamating or improvising as he saw fit.

There is internal evidence in the shanties which demonstrates a wide variety of influences including, among others, traditional folksong, traditional dance tunes, worksongs from black stevedores in southern U.S.A. cotton ports, music hall, soldiers’ marching songs, parlour songs, religious music and even light opera and popular poetry.

In this presentation I demonstrate the relationship between possible particular sources and particular shanties by singing or playing extracts from several dozen shanties and related songs, tunes and poems, accompanying myself on melodeon, concertina or guitar, where appropriate. In the course of this I discuss the creative process of ‘shanty-making’ with direct reference to the influence on the resultant songs of the work which they were intended to accompany and with oblique reference to similar creative phenomena such as football chants, rugby songs and WW 1 Tommies’ songs.

 ‘Advice to Young Maidens’: Contemporary Female Responses to the Sea Shanty

The female experience permeates sea shanties and ballads of the sea, from cautionary tales of prostitution, female warriors and bereavement. This presentation, however, explores contemporary responses to the sea shanty as a genre and questions the form a feminist perspective might take. It considers how different responses such as White Chalk by PJ Harvey, Night Before Mutiny by harpist Serafina Steer, Susan Philipsz’s interpretation of Lowland’s Away, Childbirth by Sisters Unlimited and interpretations by shanty singers Eight Bells and the Johnson Girls, contribute to a third-wave feminist agenda following the folk music revival that coincided with the earlier second-wave feminist movement. The paper will utilise Julia Kristeva’s discussion of woman’s time and E.P. Thompson’s examination of the development of working time in Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism, to analyse both the female conception of generational time and the differing work rhythms and notions of musical time in their contemporary shanty responses.  It will ultimately argue that the sea shanty as a site of resistance to societal norms can be applied to women’s feminist activism both in terms of musical form and performance practices.

The public presentation will be performed as a series of letters to an agony aunt, written in the style of an advice column. Contemporarily considered a primarily female form of expression, this mechanism of dispensing advice has links with the personal reassurances and relationship advice within sea shanties for seafarers and the women left behind. The letters to an agony aunt across generations will allow a curious, poignant and humorously engaging introduction to both the historical themes being regenerated, as well as aspects of feminist theory and performativity in the highlighted responses to the sea shanty.

Shanties, but Much More: A History of Singing at Work Cultures in the British Isles

The talk will explore the social history of singing at work cultures in the British Isles.  In the process, I will draw out what is unique to shantying cultures and what shantying has in common with other singing at work cultures.  I draw on the book, Rhythms of Labour (Cambridge University Press) and its accompanying double CD. The talk begins by asking questions about our historical knowledge of singing at work cultures.  To change the evocative phrase of a Walt Whitman poem: Can we hear the British Isles singing at work?  Many great British fiction writers reference singing at work cultures from the seventeenth into the twentieth century – Shakespeare, Wordsworth, D.H. Lawrence.  However, no systematic attempt has been made to assess whether shantying stands out as a unique tradition of singing at work in (and around) the British Isles.  The review of the historical record shows that most of the populous manual occupations did have some significant singing at work cultures.  I then explore the meanings that were attached to this singing, around the themes of fancy and function, community and voice.  I end by charting the factors that led to the silencing of singing at work cultures.

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